Meet the Fashion Legend Behind CARP’s LBGTQ Pink Chapter

Canadian Fashion legend Wayne Clark discusses the struggles of aging in the youth-obsessed Gay Community.

I hate birthdays, they’re always disappointing. I mean, nobody gives me a Mercedes,” says Canadian fashion designer Wayne Clark, who turns 60 this year. “I want fur coats! I want jewelry! I want to be overwhelmed, and it never happens.”

While he kids about his wish list, Clark does admit being a little overwhelmed by a looming retirement. “My biggest fear is that I can’t earn a living — destitute and at the mercy of the world,” he says. “I have to face the reality that I may not be able to carry my groceries up the stairs one of these days, just like everybody else.”

This is one of the main reasons Clark is the face behind the new Pink Chapter of CARP, the newest support network for Canada’s rapidly aging gay community. This new LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual) initiative is in its infancy but poised to bring an energized advocacy for gay people in Canada, as they age alongside their straight boomer counterparts.

Clark’s name is synonymous with the glamorous evening gowns that he has been whipping up for more than 30 years. Women as diverse as actor Jane Fonda and singing star Rihanna have all enjoyed the luxe elegance a Wayne Clark dress can bestow. Being part of the hit TV show Project Runway Canada helped introduce his work to a new generation of fashion followers and, like a lot of internationally successful designers, the client list is both long and loyal.

“I knew early on that fashion was the profession I wanted,” he says. “But growing up in Calgary, you might as well tell your parents you want to be a tap dancer.”

Luckily, his grandfather got him into the Alberta College of Art and Design, which led to fashion studies at Sheridan College just outside Toronto.
A stint with British fashion designer Hardy Amies followed in the 1970s — a man who knew a thing or two about how to grow old gracefully, as couturier-in-residence at Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II until his retirement in 2001. “He was either all in or all out, working really hard or not working at
all,” Clark says of his former mentor who died in 2003 at 93.

Fit and bright-eyed, Clark has enormous energy, epitomizing the young-as-you-feel attitude that eludes so many. But he has had his share of wars with the mirror. “You catch a glimpse of yourself and you’re shocked,” he says. “There was this mirrored pillar out front of a store I had. One day, I thought, ‘Who’s that old man hanging around the lobby?’ and it was me! We are just not at all how we picture ourselves physically.”

Clark readily admits that the youth-obsessed gay community, generally so enthralled with image, may find it harder to get over the fact that it is getting long in the tooth.

“This is the first time in modern history that a generation of openly gay people is reaching the golden years,” says John Thornton, chair of Pink CARP. “We want to find out how the community would like to define aging because it hasn’t really been discussed openly. Until now, we lacked a unified national voice. Pink CARP’s virtual chapter has no geographical boundaries and allows us to achieve an immediate, national reach.”

Perhaps Clark’s 60th birthday won’t be too hard to take, armed with a new retirement approach. “I’m hoping Pink CARP motivates me to take better control of what’s left of my life,” he says. But that Mercedes is likely a pipe
dream. “I just want someone to give me a passport that says 1959 instead
of 1949.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 2009 issue with the headline, “Thinking Pink,” p. 24.